Spoiler Level: Safe
It's been a superhero-heavy summer. After Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Green Lantern—to say nothing of their close cousins in costumed derring-do Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean—even this lifelong comic fan was feeling done with capes and cowls for a while. I was feeling done with explosions, done with battles, and done forever with objects being hurled at the screen to show off the latest (but familiarly murky) 3D technology. I was ready for some Merchant-Ivory-style dramas, where tightly laced, turn-of-the-century Jamesian aristocrats have subtle, polite conversations in parlors, hardly ever saying exactly what they mean, and almost never underlining their points with flamethrowers.
All of which is to say that I went into my midnight showing of Captain America: The First Avenger feeling not just exhausted but over-saturated, and feeling that if I had to endure one more superhero origin story I was going to shove a radioactive spider up my butt and let it munch me into an early, cancer-riddled grave.
And then Captain America started, and I was shocked to realize it was—for the first hour or so at least—the best superhero movie of the summer.
After a confident and intriguing framing sequence in the present day, the film moves to New York in 1942, as 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers (a digitally diminished Chris Evans) is doing everything in his power to enlist in the Army.
Short, skinny, and not particularly coordinated, Steve nonetheless has a good heart, a strong sense of his patriotic duty, and—most importantly—that quintessential American attribute, pluck. After being rejected for military service five times at five different recruiting stations, his (already enlisted) friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) thinks he should give it up. But then Steve comes to the attention of scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who thinks he may have found the perfect volunteer for his new "super-soldier" experiment.
Working the other side of the war is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the evil leader of the Nazi's experimental research division, Hydra. (Schmidt and Erskine's "super-soldier" experiments go way back, with some unfortunate side-effects.) Schmidt has recovered an ancient artifact (from elsewhere in the Marvel universe) that can power the futuristic weapon designs of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), which Schmidt intends to use to take over the world. (Apparently, Hitler is neither evil enough or ambitious enough for Schmidt, who has decided to take Hydra out on its own.)
Director Joe Johnston imbues the first half of Captain America: The First Avenger with the same innocent (but not cartoonish) period charm of his last good film, The Rocketeer. The WWII era details are wonderfully realized—without being overly self-conscious or showy—and the tone is perfect: just the right amount of cheese (for Captain America should be a little cheesy), without straying too far into corny. Once you get past the distraction of the digital effect—which give Evans rather Tweety Bird-like proportions—young, skinny Steve Rogers is surprisingly likeable, and the film spends more time developing his character than most of these live-action toy commercials bother with. We root for him to succeed, both in his military aspirations and with the requisite love interest, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Also unusual for this type of movie, Agent Carter seems like an actual character—smart and capable—and, though the love story never moves to the forefront, it is both believable and deftly handled.
For the first half of Captain America: The First Avenger, I was indeed prepared to crown it the champion of this summer's superhero showdown. The film achieves something that, in my opinion, no other superhero movie has done so far, which is to feel like a comic book. I do not mean to damn it with faint praise, or use "comic book" in a derogatory sense: the particular tone of good superhero comics—fun, but also taking their own conceits at face value—is very difficult to reproduce, and most films veer too far towards either tongue-in-cheek camp or overly serious science-fiction. Captain America gets this tone just right, taking its adventure elements seriously while providing some genuine laughs, better-than-average dialogue, and some good, earnest fun. (The film also provides comic fans with plenty of in-jokes, references, and cameos—as well as tie-ins to other movies in the Marvel line—which I won't spoil here.)
Unfortunately, once Captain America goes into action against Hydra, about halfway through, the film simply becomes less engaging, and so do its characters. Buff Captain America, it turns out, is not as emotionally engaging—or as likeable—as skinny Steve Rogers. Similarly, the Red Skull (though he looks fantastic) turns out to be nothing more than a standard-issue madman; Weaving is fantastic in the first half of the movie, but the second half gives him less and less to work with. Most of the third act is Captain America and his ragtag team of soldiers (who are, but are not called here, The Howling Commandos) fighting against endless, faceless Hydra drones, and too many of the action sequences are filmed as montages, which drains them of their suspense and impact. The third act is far from terrible, but it becomes much more of a cookie-cutter action movie and squanders much of its potential .
Still, it is encouraging to see Marvel Studios get closer and closer to getting these movies right, and it's a relief—after Thor and X-Men: First Class—to watch a superhero movie where the human set-up is far more satisfying than the big set pieces. (Iron Man had a similar problem, I thought: Tony Stark [Robert Downey, Jr.] was nowhere near as interesting once he put on the armor.) You take the first half of Captain America, however, and the second half of X-Men: First Class, and you would have a truly great superhero movie. Perhaps that movie will be The Avengers (coming in 2012 from writer/director Joss Whedon), which this movie—from its awkward title to its clever final scene—is setting up. I can wait: having run the entire superhero movie gauntlet this summer, I'm ready for a break from comic book action.
(What's that you say? Cowboys and Aliens? Next weekend? Sigh…)